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Applications of Sorting

The key to understanding sorting is seeing how it can be used to solve many important programming tasks:

Basic Sorting Algorithms

What are the time complexities and number of data moves for each algorithm?

Multicriteria Sorting

How can we break ties in sorting by using multiple criteria, like sorting primarily on last name and breaking ties on first name?

One way is to use a complicated comparison function that combines all the keys to break ties:

int suitor_compare(suitor *a, suitor *b)
        int result;  /* result of comparison */

        if (a->height < b->height) return(-1);
        if (a->height > b->height) return(1);

        if (a->weight < b->weight) return(-1);
        if (a->weight > b->weight) return(1);

        if ((result=strcmp(a->last,b->last)) != 0)
                    return result;


Another way is to use repeated passes through a stable sorting function, one which is guaranteed to leave identical keys in the same relative order they were in before the sorting.

If so, we could sort by first name, and then do stable sort by last name and know the final results are sorted by both major and minor keys.

Sorting Library Functions in C

The stdlib.h contains library functions for sorting and searching. For sorting, there is the function qsort:

#include <stdlib.h>

void qsort(void *base, size_t nel, size_t width,
          int (*compare) (const void *, const void *));

It sorts the first nel elements of an array (pointed to by base), where each element is width-bytes long. Thus we can sort arrays of 1-byte characters, 4-byte integers, or 100-byte records, all by changing the value of width.

The ultimate desired order is determined by the function compare. It takes as arguments pointers to two width-byte elements, and returns a negative number if the first belongs before the second in sorted order, a positive number if the second belongs before the first, or zero if they are the same.

Binary search is also included:

    bsearch(key, (char *) a, cnt, sizeof(int), intcompare);

Sorting and Searching in C++

The C++ Standard Template Library (STL) includes methods for sorting, searching, and more. Serious C++ users should get familiar with STL.

To sort with STL, we can either use the default comparison (e.g., $\leq$) function defined for the class, or override it with a special-purpose comparison function op:

void sort(RandomAccessIterator bg, RandomAccessIterator end)
void sort(RandomAccessIterator bg, RandomAccessIterator end,
          BinaryPredicate op)

STL also provides a stable sorting routine, where keys of equal value are guaranteed to remain in the same relative order.

void stable_sort(RandomAccessIterator bg, RandomAccessIterator end)
void stable_sort(RandomAccessIterator bg, RandomAccessIterator end,
          BinaryPredicate op)

Other STL functions implement some of the applications of sorting, including,

Sorting and Searching in Java

The java.util.Arrays class contains various methods for sorting and searching. In particular,

static void sort(Object[] a) 
static void sort(Object[] a, Comparator c)
sorts the specified array of objects into ascending order using either the natural ordering of its elements or a specific comparator $c$. Stable sorts are also available.

Methods for searching a sorted array for a specified object using either the natural comparison function or a new comparator $c$ are also provided:

binarySearch(Object[] a, Object key) 
binarySearch(Object[] a, Object key, Comparator c)

Assigned Problems

110401 (Vito's Family) - Find the most central location on a street, to minimize total distance to certain neighbors. Is the right version of average mean, median, or something else?

110403 (Bridge) - How should $n$ people of variable speeds cross a two-man bridge at night when there is only one flashlight? Does sorting the people by speed help determine who should be paired up?

110405 (Shoemaker's Problem) - How should a shoemaker order the jobs he does so as to minimize total penalty costs for lateness, when different jobs have different penalties? Does it help to sort jobs by their length, or by their penalty, or both?

110406 (CDVII) - Compute the total amount of tolls people owe in a world where toll costs vary with time. How do we pair up entry and exit records?

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Next: About this document ... Up: My Home Page
Steve Skiena